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Researchers plot strategic plan to reduce state highway headaches

As the season of jackhammers and dust descends on state highways, it might be reassuring to know that a statewide research effort could ultimately reduce road-maintenance headaches.

That's just one goal of the new Wisconsin Highway Research Program, which brings together a diverse group of experts to set a strategic course for state highways. The effort teams engineers from UW-Madison and other state universities with state and federal transportation offices, private industry and consultants.

Peter J. Bosscher

Peter J. Bosscher (large image)

It's the first time that all of these interests are working together to set a research agenda for state transportation, says Peter J. Bosscher, a UW-Madison civil engineer and director of the UW-Madison effort. The program has started with $500,000 in funding from the state Department of Transportation (DOT) for 15 distinct projects on improving pavement, structures and foundations.

The concerted effort could not come at a better time, Bosscher says. Like most states in the country, Wisconsin is on a collision course between rapidly rising traffic rates and the ability of existing highways to handle it all.

"In the last 15 years, traffic loads have increased per lane by about 50 percent on all state highways," he says. "And we're not doing a good job in this state of putting more people in those vehicles. The average is about 1.2 people per car."

In addition, 46 percent of the state's highways are officially defined as congested, meaning they have traffic bottlenecks on a consistent basis. And by 2020, an estimated 62 percent will be congested, Bosscher says.

Urban areas such as Madison and Milwaukee face major traffic issues ahead. Needed upgrades to Milwaukee's highway and interstate system may top $5 billion in coming decades, and $20 billion for the entire state.

"There are some real challenges here," he adds. "Traffic volume is our single biggest problem."

The two overriding goals of the partnership are to reduce driver delays in key areas around the state, and gradually develop highway products that will last longer without additional costs. Some specific projects include:


  • Finding new types of surface treatments that can lengthen the life of concrete.


  • Investigating ways to reduce road settlement at the base of bridges, which often causes harsh bumps.


  • Studying accident rates caused by wet pavement and finding new surface designs that can improve traction.


  • Developing a Beneficial Reuse Program, which will turn industrial waste such as foundry sand, coal slag and fly ash into low-cost material for road construction.

"The question is, can we develop better materials so we only need to revisit roads for maintenance every 30 or so years?" Bosscher asks. "We hope to leave a legacy of improved materials and less required maintenance on roads. The payoff for research is always in the future."

One immediate research result, however, came from a small-scale project looking at reducing traffic noise caused by tires on pavement. A new type of grooved pavement significantly reduced traffic noise in urban areas, he says.

Partners in the research program include the Wisconsin DOT, the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA), and researchers at Marquette University, UW-Milwaukee and UW-Platteville. Private companies and consultants are also helping set the research agenda.

While the current agenda focuses on technical issues, Bosscher says the group will eventually tackle issues that get at community values, such as mass transit alternatives. Examples will include the feasibility of light rail as a commuting alternative, and assessing the impact new roads have - both good and bad - on a community.

"We all have the American dream of going where we want to go, when we want to go," Bosscher says. "I don't think people realize how much they depend on highways for that capability."